The role of beliefs and religion in disaster

Mona Regad, Sven Da Silva (Wageningen University)

The relationship between culture, disasters and risks is not always seen as straightforward. Yet, what we believe in, which truths we hold as valid, which behaviours we deem as normal and what defines our human condition has great implications for our involvement and interpretation of disastrous events.

Beliefs, in particular religious beliefs, have numerous attributes and functions. They are heterogeneous and dynamic, as they change and develop through time and space under the influence of the societies they take root in. Beliefs mediate the relationship between human beings and their environment, are used to make sense of the world and of experiences, and thus shape how communities perceive and react to disastrous events. It is thus important to consider these beliefs throughout the disaster cycle.

Religion and disasters

Faiths and convictions are sensitive topics which are usually not addressed upfront, especially in emergency situations. They challenge rational assumptions and because they are intangible, they can be difficult to understand and to recognise. Yet as they form a major part of culture, beliefs influence all aspects throughout the disaster cycle:

  • how communities look at risks and disasters;
  • how they respond to it;
  • how they recover from it;
  • their capacity and eagerness to implement disaster risk reduction strategies.

Religion has an active role in bringing people together. Religion can act as a resource for people by giving access to networks of support and by providing ways of coping with disasters. Beliefs provide a framework for understanding, interpreting, preparing and responding to disasters. Natural hazards-induced disasters are sometimes interpreted across cultures and cults as divine expressions of God’s punishment, anger, or retribution for human sins.

This influences the capacity of people to respond. On one hand, fatalistic understandings can support passive attitudes and can deter people from evacuating a risky area or implementing preparedness measures. On the other hand, faith-based interpretations can also help people being more aware of their vulnerability and provide grounds for mitigation practices. Indeed, certain communities can value being proactive and engaging in preparedness activities as a way of negotiating with the divine and influence the risk.

Research in Italy, Hungary and Turkey for example has shown that groups understanding disasters such as earthquakes as caused by fate or God were not well prepared, because they did not believe having any control over the event. This behaviour is referred to in psychology as external locus of control, where people place outcomes outside of their reach and thus the feeling of having no responsibility in it deters them from taking preparedness actions. Religious beliefs can also work in the opposite way, by fostering internal locus of control, where each individual is in ownership of his own fate or karma. Regarding climate change mitigation for example, Buddhist notions of interconnectedness and mindfulness can be operationalised to foster better practices towards sustainability (Daniels 2010; Oral et al. 2015)

Working with beliefs and religious groups

Faith-based community groups have their own modes of organisation, practices and communication means. Accessing religious groups for disaster preparedness and DRR is therefore crucial for disseminating information.

As a starting point, it is important to consider religious groups both as targets and resources for disaster management.

Some tips to consider when working with religious communities:

  • Involving groups representatives in discussions and planning about DRR
  • Connecting with faith leaders to build trustful relationships and facilitate the implementation of a DRR framework with inputs from both civic and religious actors
  • Adapting language and material: speaking the same language than partners and affected populations helps in securing good communication
  • Developing tools for training faith leaders and for securing outreach and continuity within communities (ex: disaster preparedness as part of school curriculum)
  • Developing a form of religious literacy by being aware of appropriate customs and behaviours (ex: clothing, behaviour towards women, food prohibition and dietary laws regarding food provision…)

Faith leaders are valuable resource persons as they can act as brokers between aid organisations and communities. They benefit from the community’s trust and thus it can be profitable to be introduced by them to the people and to learn from them about the group’s culture before starting to work. Evacuation instructions, for example, may be better accepted and followed when enacted by a priest, an imam or a rabbi than by a state representative or an aid worker.

In the same way, religious buildings are strategic locations as they are home to important practices and eventually social activities by religious communities. Churches, temples, mosques and synagogues are perceived by their attendees as safe places, where they may seek refuge or advice. Therefore, contingency plans could eventually consider them as places to accommodate displaced people, or distribute food, while paying attention to the fact that these spaces do not have the same impact for people from different cults.

In the aftermath of disasters in Indonesia, Islamic Relief and Cordaid launched a pilot project on the important role of mosques, especially in the emergency phase, where they were used as shelter by vulnerable communities and turned into aid centres of coordination and distribution. The pilot built on a network of 6 religious places in 2 districts in addition to Disaster Management Teams comprising 150 members. It targets poor and disaster prone communities, faith leaders, activists and government disaster management authorities at the district and provincial level. The project aims at strengthening the capacities of existing DMT and DRR networks through training and enhancing community awareness and participation in the project by engaging local people in DRR activities (mock drills, simulation exercises, hazard mapping, etc.) while looking out for expansion possibilities towards other actors and religious places (Cordaid 2014)

Potential cultural assets and obstacles of religion in the context of disaster

Based on the few examples in the literature, it is possible to provide an overview of the potential and complex assets and obstacles of religion for people in disaster contexts.

Before discussing the potential cultural assets and obstacles of religion for individuals in the context of disaster, a few things that are mentioned by Kemkens (n.d.) need to be taken into consideration. Firstly, these assets and obstacles do not suddenly arise in times of disaster, but they may become relevant and apparent related to resilience and vulnerability. Secondly, it is important to keep in mind that the religious beliefs and practices of individuals are not static but dynamic. Thirdly, due to contextual dynamics, no generalized conclusions can be drawn on whether a particular person will actually benefit from, or be hindered by, his or her religion in times of disaster. Finally, a number of religious dimensions, such as beliefs, rituals, and social networks mediate the potential assets or obstacles of religion, making it difficult to simply point at causal relations.

Religious groups are usually well integrated within local communities and thus often able to respond to disaster in a very short time span. Moreover, these organizations often benefit from high levels of trust among local communities (Gaillard and Texier 2010). For example, in New Orleans, based on the role of the Catholic Church, the Village de L’Est -where a Vietnamese immigrant community lives and that was severely flooded during Hurricane Katrina – was able to return and rebuild more efficiently than less damaged and richer neighborhoods. This neighborhood rebuilt so fast due to a combination of the strong social ties amongst the Vietnamese immigrants and the local church that had ties as well to the Vietnamese community. The church shared goods and played a central role in the coordination for recovery. Together with the community they organized political action to protect the area from outside development and zoning changes (Aldrich and Meyer 2015).

Another example comes from the contribution of mosques in cultural, economic, social and political aspects of the lives of earthquake affected communities in Pakistan (Cheema et al. 2014). During response and relief, mosques –as they were located in the center of communities and had loudspeakers- functioned as initial contact point, as spaces for social coordination and integration, as spaces where vulnerable groups were looked after, as central points for providing information to the community, and as institutions that provided spiritual support. However, there was diversity in how communities related to their mosques and consequently the role that mosques, or the Imam, played in post-disaster settings. Whereas some communities appreciated the their Imam’s involvement, others felt that the role of the Imam should be limited to being a spiritual or personal guide (ibid). This highlights the importance of the local context that needs to be taken into account in disaster risk reduction.

In addition to the many potential functions religion may serve in contributing to recovery, there are also a number of potential obstacles related to religion that may be a challenge for religious communities or disaster responders. Most often mentioned is that of fatalistic attitudes. Religious fatalism refers to the idea that the occurrence of events is predetermined that people cannot or should not control the occurrence of these events nor its outcomes. To this light, religious communities may prefer to wait for evacuation orders of their spiritual leaders rather than directly follow government orders, as has happened during the eruption of Merapi in Indonesia in 2006 (Kulatunga 2010).

A few critical notes are necessary on the assumptions within the existing academic literature on religious fatalistic beliefs in the context of disaster. First, these beliefs may actually form a coping mechanism as discussed by Gaillard and Texier (2010). Second, the aforementioned authors warn that this discourse ‘’fails to consider the diversity of religious beliefs and their local cultural contexts’’ (ibid: 82). Interpretations of disasters are highly heterogeneous and religious beliefs and rational risk evaluation are not mutually exclusive.

Religion and volcanic risk in Southern Italy (Etna and Vesuvius)

Religious terms of reference have been and remain vital elements in the perceptions held by a significant proportion of the population in Southern Italy when confronted by volcanic eruptions. Among the general public living in the vicinity of Mount Etna, there is the belief that disasters may be averted through religious faith and practice through the role of saints. Some people believed the patron saint of the town could have stopped the lava, so some people decided to put the statue of the saint in front of the oncoming lava. They positioned it 50 meters away, hoping it would perform a miracle but it was no good (for more information see Chester, Duncan and Dibben 2008).

In addition, (politicized) perspectives on religion and gender or religion and conflict may hamper collaboration between on faith based disaster aid organizations and religious institutions (Cheema et al. 2014). In yet another way, next to playing an inclusionary role, religion can play a negative role when people are marginalized on the basis of their religious identity. For example, people may be excluded from aid on the basis of their religion, making them potentially more vulnerable in the context of disasters.

Therefore, understandings of disasters within religious frameworks are not confined to pre-industrial societies and are more widespread than is commonly assumed (Chester, Duncan and Dibben 2008). In fact, religious perspectives are still important for the ways in which people perceive natural disasters.

Religious landscape(s)

Even though religion is usually seen in the developed world as a private feature, an intimate part of people’s lives, it plays a central role in the existence of many. Religious congregations have an active function in shaping people’s networks, spatial organisation (e.g. neighbourhoods developing around a space of worship) and social activities.

In the USA, 75% of the population is affiliated with a religious tradition. There are 345,000 religious congregations in this country, which accounts for three times more than school or universities. Besides Christianity, with which most people identify with in Europe or in the USA (in an active or indirect way) as it is the religion that primarily influenced our culture, a large diversity of religions is represented throughout society as depicted in the maps below.

Second largest religious tradition in each state in the USA, 2010

Largest Non-Christian tradition by County, USA

It may come as a surprise to observe that the second largest community in the American West is Buddhist, or Hindu in the case of Arizona. Aid response, especially food aid, must cater to these communities in a specific way. As the second map shows, each American state is home to a religious medley, telling us that each spatial scale contains its own level of diversity. This translates into different beliefs, practices, cultures, and understandings of risk we need to be aware of when entering the setting. This diversity can indeed be a factor for complexity as it can request specific language or cultural skills that were not anticipated.

Did you know? In Oklahoma, the second country of origin of the immigrant population, after Mexico, is Myanmar.

Religious communities are organised at various levels and potentially have their own understanding of risk. Christianity, as any faith group, is divided between multiple organisations levels that will be mobilised in times of emergency. Schools, hospitals, cemeteries, social services, and aid providers may belong to the same faith and operate within the same networks. Tapping into these networks is necessary to reach populations who might not be on the same map than aid agencies or authorities.

One of the tools used to involve religious and cultural communities is the LEADER process: Learn, Educate, Assess, Determine, Engage, Review. It is used in emergency situations, but is also useful for preparedness:

Learn about the disaster’s impact (hazards maps, Vulnerability and Capacity Assessments, risk maps produced by communities and government agencies…) Educate yourself on local faith communities Assess your religious literacy and competency1: what is your current state of knowledge? With which communities are you the most comfortable working with? Where to source training or information to increase your team’s religious literacy and competency? Which biases do you have that might alter your perception of certain religious groups? Determine an Engagement plan: who/what/when/where/why/how? This is the point where connecting with brokers, key actors who will positively affect your reach and intervention, is necessary, as well as considering existing capacities. Engage religious leaders and communities by building respectful and trustful relationships Review and keep improving your plan.

For more information, see the US Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) training in Religious and Cultural Literacy and Competency.

Suggestions for further reading

Gaillard, J. C., & Texier, P. (2010). Religions, natural hazards, and disasters: An introduction. Religion, 40(2), 81–84. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.religion.2009.12.001

One of the first publication that put religion on the research agenda of disaster studies by identifying a gap to fill. This special issue of the Religion journal contains field-based work on religious interpretations of and responses to disasters (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism), with a particular focus on South-East Asia. It concludes on the importance of looking at religion as a resource and not as a hindrance in DRR policy.


Ha, K.-M. (2015). The Role of Religious Beliefs and Institutions in Disaster Management: A Case Study. Religions, 6(4), 1314–1329. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel6041314

A case study of how Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism operate in Korea regarding disaster management. It emphasises on the key role religion can play in mitigation-oriented management (even though religious groups are mostly involved in car-oriented management), because religion can mediate effective disaster management and local culture response. For a successful transition, religious groups should better communicate between each other and religious stakeholders must be aware of the meaningful role of religion to achieve disaster management and mitigate disaster impacts.


Schipper, L. F. (2010). Religion as an integral part of determining and reducing Climate Change and Disaster Risk : An agenda for research. In M. Voss (Ed.), Climate Change: The Social Science Perspective (pp. 377–393). Wiesbaden, Germany: VS-Verlag.

An important reading, where Schipper explores the role that religious belief plays in the context of risk and discusses that religion could contribute both to determining and reducing vulnerability to climate change and disaster risk. It is supported by concrete examples, in El Salvador in particular, where religious beliefs define not only perceptions of hazards, but also determine responses to the hazards, and whether or not preventive or preparedness measures are taken.

References

Daniels, P. L. (2010). Climate change, economics and Buddhism — Part I: An integrated environmental analysis framework. Ecological Economics, 69(5), 952–961. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2009.12.002

CORDAID. (2014). Role religious place in disaster situation. Retrieved March 12, 2017, from https://www.cordaid.org/en/projects/role-religious-place-in-disaster-situation/

Oral, M., Yenel, A., Oral, E., Aydin, N., & Tuncay, T. (2015). Earthquake experience and preparedness in Turkey. Disaster Prevention and Management: An International Journal, 24(1), 21–37. https://doi.org/10.1108/DPM-01-2013-0008